Established in 1994 as the interim self-governing body of occupied Palestinian territory, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has long been accused of being Israel’s subcontractor in the West Bank.
It polices areas A and B, which are under Israeli occupation, and its mandate includes reining in armed resistance to that occupation.
But 14 years into power, the PA’s current chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, who has served longer than his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, has invited a new accusation against this authority: authoritarianism, which critics say borrows from and exceeds measures exercised by Arab dictatorships.
Local and international rights groups have been documenting cases of torture, arbitrary arrest and prosecution of peaceful expression by the Palestinian Preventive Security Services since the 1990s.
But a recent escalation targeting critics of the government is highlighting new dynamics spurred by the issue of succession, which might threaten Abbas’s future in office.
In June, Abbas approved an Electronic Crime Law that, among other regulations, imposes tight controls on online media freedom and dissent. Since then the law has been used to shut down 29 websites while six journalists were arrested by the PA according to Amnesty International.
Last week, one of Palestine’s most prominent anti-settlement activists, Issa Amro, was arrested after writing two posts on his Facebook page that were critical of the Palestinian Authority.
Amro — a coordinator for Youth Against Settlements, a group documenting human rights violations and organising protests against Israeli policies in the city of Hebron in the West Bank — was released on bail Monday, following an international campaign demanding his freedom.
He still faces charges of disturbing “public order” under the Electronic Crimes Law, as well as “causing strife” and “insulting the higher authorities” under the 1960 Jordanian penal code that is still in force in the West Bank.
Observers say that Amro’s international profile and the solidarity campaign that followed his arrest assisted in his release, which few expected to take as long as a week to be realised. But it also exposed the length to which Palestinian security forces are willing to go to silence dissent, even if it damages President Abbas’s reputation further.
According to Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch director in Israel and Palestine, the current situation has escalated in part because the Palestinian intelligence and preventive security have consolidated their power within the government.
In April, Abbas requested that Israel reduces its electricity supply to Hamas-controlled Gaza and slashed salaries of PA employees based in Gaza in a new measure to put pressure on the rival Islamist group.
The escalation followed moves by Abbas’s rival, the Emirati-based and backed former Palestinian official Mohamed Dahlan to open channels with Hamas, possibly paving the way for his plans to return and assume a leadership role.
“It’s very clear that recent policies as well as the general orientation of the PA towards Gaza [are all motivated] by concerns about succession and who will take control of the PA after Abbas,” Shakir said in a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
The arrest of six journalists by preventive security and shutting down of websites in the West Bank in August were perceived as targeting alleged supporters of Hamas and Dahlan.
But the week-long incarceration of Amro demonstrated expansion beyond the context of opposition activists and moving against anti-occupation figures “with the intention to intimidate and silence other activists by taking someone with Amro’s stature,” Shakir added.
Since Hamas’s election victory in 2006 legislative elections and the subsequent power struggle with the ruling Fatah movement, the Palestinian Legislative Council ceased operation, causing a legislative void. For almost a decade now, Palestinian legislation is passed by executive decree by the president.
This facilitated Abbas’s issuing of the Electronic Crime Law, which took Palestinian civil society by surprise once it came into existence.
Despite government assurances that the law would not be enforced against free speech, Amro and others have been arrested, exacerbating fears that the intelligence and preventive security will maintain a policy of zero tolerance for dissent.
As the Hamas-Dahlan rapprochement becomes more likely, the issue of succession is gaining traction, observers say.
“There has been a free ride for this government ever since the Palestinian Legislative Council stopped meeting, so we’ve had a good 10 years of zero oversight of the government,” said Sam Bahour, a Ramallah-based Palestinian analyst.
Amro’s arrest has drawn attention to the issue, he added, “but it shouldn’t happen by putting people in jail, rather by re-engaging the political system so we actually do have checks and balances,” he told the Weekly.
Shortly after his release Amro, who went on hunger strike following his arrest, said he will continue his work as an anti-occupation human rights activist and called on Abbas to review the law “which is repressing freedom of expression”.
In a telephone interview with the Weekly the following day, Amro said the law sets a precedent and constitutes a “new” development. “Now there is a legal basis for arresting people for what they write online.
Now everybody is more cautious,” he said. “This time those being targeted aren’t Islamists or those close to Hamas as has been the case. This is new.”
Amro said he’ll go on trial and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. He’s also facing 18 charges by Israel for his activism against illegal settlements in his city of Hebron.
“Without a political system, we have a legal system that is run by presidential decree,” said Bahour. “For all intents and purposes, this can be called the Kingdom of Palestine.”
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly